Mumbai: Dabang Mumbai, who had never made it to the semi-finals of the previous four editions of Hockey India League, are hoping that season 5 will turn out better as they play their five home games at a stretch here from Saturday till the end of the month.
Mumbai open their campaign against two-time champions Ranchi Rays and then clash with UP Wizards (Jan 24), defending champions Punjab Warriors (Jan 27), 2014 champions Delhi Wave Riders (Jan 30) before concluding their home leg against last year's losing finalists Kalinga Lancers (Jan 31).
The home side - coached by four-time Olympian Jay Stacy of Australia - has the right mixture of experience and youth, both in attack and defence.
The presence of five players - who were all part of the Indian World Junior Cup winning squad will be of interest as national coach Roelant Oltmans has said he will be watching the juniors’ performance in HIL with a keen eye.
"We deliberately gave some pitch time to the five boys last year and since then they have significantly improved and got exposed to higher levels of hockey, lots of international games and training, and of course success in the Junior World Cup in Lucknow," said head coach Stacy.
The five are goalkeeper Krishan Pathak, drag-flick penalty corner exponent Harmanpreet Singh, midfielders Nilakanta Sharma and Manpreet Singh and forward Gurjant Singh.
"I am rally pleased that they are going to be able to impact matches this year. I'm pleased with their confidence and the form they are showing. I was in Lucknow to watch the Australian team and I was also watching the Indian team perform. Those boys, in particular, performed very well. I am very happy with the condition that they are in," Stacy added.
German striker Florian Fuchs, of six foreign nationalities represented in the squad, will lead the team.
The squad has David Harte and Pathak to guard the goal, while Harmanpreet, Jeremy Hayward, Gurmail Singh would form the defensive wall.
There have been three new additions in Belgium defender Emmanuel Stockbroekx and the Dutch duo -- Sander De Wijn and Robert Kemperman.
Nilakanta Sharma, Danish Mujtaba, Vikas Sharma, Tyron Pereira, Manpreet and Vikas Sharma will form the midfield while Fuchs, Roshan Minz, Affan Yousuf, Gurjant Singh, John Bjorkman would lead the attack.
Stacy was confident the team will make the play-offs after missing the bus in earlier editions.
"We need to get more results, but we made significant improvement last year from the previous edition when we won just one game. Last year, we won four and missed the play-off on goal difference, showing we are heading in right direction.
"We have to tighten up a few areas -- in decision making, in set pieces and things like that - but I am optimistic we can make the play-off this year," the Australian said.
Indian forward and Olympian Nikkin Thimmaiah and Australian mid-fielder Keiran Govers are back after missing out on action last year due to injuries.
The visitors, guided by Junior World Cup winning coach Harendra Singh, are no push-overs as they have retained England’s Ashley Jackson and Barry Middleton, along with Australian defender Fergus Kavanagh.
In addition they have a strong Indian presence in Gurbaj Singh, Kothajit Singh, Manpreet Singh and Birendra Lakra and four juniors who were part of the victorious Indian Junior World Cup squad.
Christopher Ruhr, who won the bronze medal with Germany in last August's Rio Olympics, will also lend extra edge to the team along with Australian defender Timothy Deavin, who was a member of his country's gold-medal winning team in the 2014 World Cup.
"This time all the teams are of equal strength and anybody can go on to win the title. I am also happy that all our Junior World Cup players have got a chance to play in the HIL. I know that all foreign players want to play in the League, not only for the money for also for the experience," said Harendra Singh.
"First match of the league. Because of the Olympic Games in summer lot of players had taken time off and then come here directly. I am are very lucky to be here and especially playing for Ranchi which gets very good crowd. We are also two-time champions," said Jackson.
"More importantly, you have the juniors to fill in the places. We have four in our team. For me the league is the reason why India won the Junior World Cup title. HIL is very important for Indian hockey," the English player added.
"They are a year older and year more mature. They had a very successful WC and unbelievable experience. You can say they are more confident. They have played hockey for a long time and understanding of how to play the game and hopefully we will see it in the quality of the games this year."
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Updated Date: Jan 20, 2017 20:54:57 IST